Under Fire

BERLIN/BAGHDAD (Own report) - While Berlin is pushing for the prolongation of the Bundeswehr's deployment in Syria and Iraq, German soldiers have come under fire north of Baghdad. Last weekend, several mortar rounds were fired at Camp Taji, one of the Iraqi armed forces' largest bases, where German soldiers are training Iraqi military personnel. Officially, the training is part of the ongoing war against the IS, whose remaining structures are still operating underground. Normally, German participation in that war is due to end on October 31. The German government now seeks to prolong this deployment to emphasize its efforts to gain influence in the Middle East, also militarily - against the SPD, which until now has opposed the measure. However, there are signs that the SPD is changing course. At least, there is a danger that in Iraq, the German contingent in Baghdad could be drawn into the escalating confrontation between the USA and Iran as can be seen by the recent mortar attacks.

Debating the Prolongation of Deployment

The debate on prolonging the Bundeswehr's deployment in the anti-IS war is gaining momentum. The current deployment of nearly 460 soldiers is scheduled to end on October 31. The deployment has three components. Four Bundeswehr "Tornado" reconnaissance aircraft and a refueling aircraft are stationed at the al Azraq Airbase in Jordan. The Tornados are carrying out surveillance over the regions, where the remaining IS structures are seeking to continue their underground activities - in Syria, whose government has not granted Berlin permission. Therefore, this is illegal. According to reports, the German aircraft are providing around half of the reconnaissance data for the region. German military personnel are also stationed in Camp Taji north of Baghdad, where they are training Iraqi forces, also in CBRN defenses. And finally, in Erbil in northern Iraq, German soldiers are training forces of the Kurdish Peshmerga, which they have been supporting for five years. Since the summer 2014, Berlin has not only been providing the Peshmerga with training by German units but also furnishing military hardware for their combat against the IS. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[1]) The training still continues.

"New Situation," "New Evaluation"

The German government seeks to prolong the mission. This was recently reiterated, during Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's visit to the troops at the three sites of Bundeswehr deployment: Al Azraq, Camp Taji, and Erbil. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also advocates the prolongation of the German military missions in Jordan and Iraq. In reference to former Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen's proposal of October 31 as a withdrawal date - which was supported by the SPD in light of its rapidly diminishing electoral base - Maas explained, last week, that one cannot do "as if little has changed in this region over the past year." Therefore, the Bundeswehr must maintain a presence in the Middle East.[2] In the meantime, the parliamentary group of the SPD has also begun to acquiesce. For example, the party's spokespersons on the Bundestag's Defense as well as the Foreign Affairs Committees Fritz Feigentreu and Nils Schmid, have begun openly to speak in terms of a "new evaluation" of the region's "new situation."[3] On the weekend, Rolf Mützenich, provisional Chair of the Parliamentary Group, who up to recently has categorically favored the October 31 withdrawal of the troops, has announced that he is "always ready" to "hear arguments." The circumstances could "change at any moment."[4]

A Proxy Conflict

The debate has been spurred on not only by the German government's general attempts to expand its presence in the Middle East,[5] but also by the specific developments in Iraq. That country, which is not only still suffering from the destruction inflicted during the US led 2003 aggression and the country's ensuing occupation, but must also confront the enormous task of having to overcome the additional material and social devastation caused by the war against the IS. The current government, formed last year, after long and tedious negotiations, seeks to establish a modicum of social unity within the country. This is considered extremely difficult. A segment of the Shiite majority population has close ties to Iran, while Islamist tendencies have influence in the Sunnite minority, with some maintaining close ties to Saudi Arabia. From the Iraqi government's perspective, the escalation of tensions between Iran and the US are having a devastating effect. Within the realm of its "maximum pressure strategy" against Iran, Washington is doing everything possible to lessen Iran's influence in Baghdad, and Teheran is applying its own counter-pressure. US attempts to force Iraq to abide by its sanctions against Iran is plunging that poverty-stricken country into new problems, while simultaneously exacerbating anger within the pro-Iranian segments of the population. Since some time, observers have been warning, that the tensions could escalate out of control - with disastrous consequences for the entire Middle East.

Rockets Fired at Camp Taji

Several warning signals have, in fact, been noted over the past few months. For example, in mid-May, a rocket fired into Baghdad's Green Zone exploded not far from the US embassy - an indication that, if the conflict further escalates, the security of US personnel in Iraq is no longer assured. In mid-June rockets were fired into Camp Taji, one of the country's largest military bases situated to the north of ´Baghdad, where not only Germans, but Americans as well, are training Iraqi military personnel. Conversely, arms depots and a convoy of Iran-allied Iraqi militias were fired upon in July and August. A recent study of the International Crisis Group explained that these incidents helped push U.S.-Iranian tensions to the edge of confrontation, underscoring the danger of the situation in Iraq. Should a security vacuum result from the tensions between Washington and Tehran, this could enable an ISIS comeback.[6]

Becoming Ever Deeper Involved

On the one hand, because the extremely tense situation, the German government considers its presence in Iraq necessary to exert its own influence in the bitter power struggles. This would contribute toward the avowed "strategic autonomy" the EU is seeking. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[7]) On the other hand, the risk of German soldiers being caught up in the crossfire is increasing. Saturday night, for example, six mortar rounds were again fired at Camp Taji, with three of them hitting the camp. Only material damage was reported, at least, this time. The Bundeswehr currently has around 60 soldiers stationed in Camp Taji - in a separate area of the camp - guarded by a private security company. It is reported that, even there, the military personnel, for security reasons, move "only in heavily armored jeeps."[8] In addition, only a small contingent of the German troops are actually fulfilling the official task they came for - training Iraqi troops - the majority merely serve as security for those Germans doing the training. If the conflict in Iraq intensifies due to the growing tensions between Washington and Teheran, the shelling of Camp Taji could certainly intensify. The Bundeswehr risks being drawn ever deeper into the Iranian-US American conflict.


[1] See also The Public's Keen Sensitivity, Der zwanzigjährige Krieg and Einsatz im Irak.

[2] Heiko Maas will über neues Mandat für Irak-Einsatz diskutieren. handelsblatt.com 26.08.2019.

[3], [4] Ralph Bollmann, Konrad Schuller: Bundeswehr weiter in Syrien und Irak. faz.net 01.09.2019.

[5] See also Ein "Muskelaufbauprogramm" für die EU and Germany's Global Policy Aspiration.

[6] Iraq: Evading the Gathering Storm. Crisis Group Middle East Briefing No 70. Baghdad/Brussels, 29.08.2019.

[7] See also Strategische Autonomie and Transatlantische Perspektiven (II).

[8] Matthias Gebauer: Raketen auf Bundeswehr-Camp bei Bagdad abgefeuert. spiegel.de 01.09.2019.